The holy month of Ramadan, the 9th month of Islamic calendar, is now underway. According to Muslim faith, the meaning of “Ramadan” is burning and heat.
More clearly, burning is connected to fasting as in empty stomach one’s mundane desire is believed to be burnt. Ramadan is considered to be the most venerated month of Islamic calendar, and fasting in this month is one of the five tenets of Islam. During the month, every able-bodied Muslim must practice the fundamental and mandatory religious ritual - fasting from pre-dawn to sundown. Simply, it is a month of self-discipline, sympathy, abstention, and is obligatory for Muslims to refrain from food, water, sex, smoking, gossip, greed, anger, backbiting, and other negative activities and behaviours.
We know Sehri - the pre-dawn meal, and Iftar - the fast breaking, are integral parts in maintaining religious ritual of Ramadan. Reasonably, the demand of food items consumed these two times goes high. Traditional items taken in Ramadan are chickpeas, puffed rice, gram flour, sugar, edible oil, onion, green chili, garlic, ginger, pulse, fruits including dates, meat, fish, vegetables including aubergine, cucumber, and other groceries.
Over the past many years, people of the country have been experiencing the trend of astronomical rise in the prices of the items. In fact, it has been a perennial problem for which the brunt is always borne by the commoners, the middle or low-income group. Unscrupulous traders of the country usually target the holy month for doing brisk business cashing in on soaring demand of products under various excuses, keeping the solemnity of the month aside.
It has become a routine that every year before and during the holy month hoarders and profiteers create artificial price spike to make windfall profit, creating immense sufferings for the already inflation-hit citizens. Apart from the soaring prices of vegetables and fruits, the basic commodities also witness an increase in their prices. Usually, prices of onions, potatoes, tomatoes, chillies, eggplants and other vegetables are increased phenomenally while wholesalers and retailers do not follow the government-fixed rates and overcharge the consumers.
In our country, the onus of fixing commodity prices is on the commerce ministry and the responsibility of checking and implementing it lies on the city corporations. We have seen on many occasions that the commerce minister of the government of the day negotiates with the traders, importers and manufacturers to keep prices of essential items affordable in the month of Ramadan. The later promise the minister to keep his request only to break it later on to fleece the consumers. As a result, consumers literally suffer owing to the manipulation by the market players dealing in various essential commodities, as well as inefficiency of the price regulators, who are supposed to monitor and check prices ahead of Ramadan.
In almost all Islamic countries of the world, major companies offer big cuts, incentives and even gifts on the eve of Ramadan. However, in Bangladesh, the situation is totally different. It has been a practice on the part of manufacturers and traders of the much needed consumer items that prices be pushed up to a maximum level till the advent of Ramadan and sometimes a very few of them offer a negligible discount valid only for the holy month. In their tricks, traders and manufacturers begin to ramp up the rates of essential commodities exorbitantly much before the Ramadan in order to gain an upper hand in their negotiations with the government authorities concerned with regard to special prices for the month. They show various pleas - import deficit, transportation cost, growing demand and imposing taxes on new products - to defend the increase in prices, which does not hold water.
The situation this time, however, is different than what it has been in the past years. According to commerce ministry, Bangladesh Bank and NBR data, there is no shortfall in import of any product needed for the upcoming Ramadan. Rather, it has been surplus in most cases. The reason for this is that the essential commodities for Ramadan have been imported in such a time when the international market was favourable, products’ supply was sufficient resulting in the lower prices.
As the people of our country usually like to take fried food in their fast breaking, the demand of soybean oil spirals during the month. According to the World Bank’s information, in January, the price of each ton of soybean oil was $872 in the international market, which has come down to $813 in March. On the other hand, the price of palm oil decreased to $736 from $809 in the same period. As per NBR information, as of February of the current fiscal year, 13 lakh 81 thousand tons of edible oil was imported in the last eight months, which is almost equal to the total demand for it. The same goes for other items including gram pulse, sugar, ginger, pulse, onion and garlic etc. Thus, there is little reason for the skyrocketed prices of the Ramadan essentials this time around.
Market manipulations, about which I already discussed above, remain a big headache for the customers and consumer right bodies. So, they highlight the need for strict monitoring the market situation, and for going tough against any such malpractice. Not to be forgotten, it is the responsibly of the fasting people to uphold the sacredness of the month. Regrettably, it is seen that many people take the month wrong as an occasion of food extravaganza, squander money for it, which creates an extra demand for it, eventually causing burden on needy people. The essence of Ramadan teaches us to be frugal and to adopt austerity. Let us be imbued with the true meaning of Ramadan, let us not make fasting into feasting.
The writer is an Associate Engineer, Thakral Information System Pvt Ltd, Dhaka.
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